Cat Teeth: An Overview
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley September 24, 2019
A cat’s teeth are important for their overall health and wellbeing. Providing preventative dental care is important to promoting a good quality of life for your feline friend. It can be easy to forget about your cat’s teeth, and it can even be frustrating trying to keep up with cleaning them. Dental disease is a common problem in pets, with approximately 50-90% of cats showing signs of dental disease by the age of 3 (CFHC, 2017; ICC).
What Is The Life Cycle Of A Cat’s Teeth?
Cats are born without any visible teeth, but their baby teeth grow in by the time they are 4 weeks old. These teeth are known as their milk teeth. By 6 months of age, a kitten has lost its baby teeth and grown its full set of adult teeth (CFHC).
How Many Teeth Do Cats Have?
Kittens start out with 26 milk teeth (CFHC). Adult cats have a total of 30 teeth. These 30 adult teeth include 12 incisors, 4 canines, 10 premolars, and 4 molars. Cats should have 6 incisors, 2 canines, 6 premolars, and 2 molars on their upper jaw and 6 incisors, 2 canines, 4 premolars, and 2 molars on their lower jaw (ICC).
What Are Cat Teeth Made Out Of?
All teeth are made of similar substances, although they may be used for different purposes based on an animal’s diet. Cat teeth have three primary components: enamel, dentine, and pulp (ICC).
- The enamel is the protective outer layer of the tooth. When the enamel is damaged, it can expose the underlying layers of the teeth and lead to pain, sensitivity, and possibly even infection of the tooth. Cats have a thinner enamel than dogs (ICC).
- The dentine is the middle layer of the tooth. The dentine makes up most of the tooth and adds an extra layer of protection to the inner most layer of the tooth (ICC).
- The pulp is in the center and is the most sensitive part of the tooth. The pulp houses all the nerves and blood vessels of the tooth (ICC).
What Are The Main Functions Of A Cat’s Teeth?
Cat teeth have three main functions: obtaining food, chewing food, and defending themselves (CFHC, ICC). Cats will use their teeth to grab and hold onto their food, such as a live prey item or dead carcass. Then they will use their teeth to tear their food up to eat it. As carnivores, cat teeth are used more for shredding and tearing meat and crushing bone, rather than grinding and chewing food like human teeth. Cats also use their teeth as weapons, biting and killing prey items or biting threatening predators or humans to defend themselves (ICC).
Cats have 4 different types of teeth, each designed for a different purpose. The types of teeth in a cat’s mouth include incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. The incisors help cats grab and hold food in their mouths while hunting, such as a mouse or bird. The canines are the teeth designed to kill the prey and tear the meat apart for consumption. The premolars and molars are used to chew food, specifically to cut and crush the meat and bones into smaller pieces for swallowing (ICC).
How Do Cats Keep Their Teeth Clean In The Wild?
In the wild, cats have a strict diet of live animals. The process of catching, killing, chewing, and eating live prey provide natural dental care to wild cats. The muscle fibers and bones of the prey help get rid of plaque and improve tooth and gum health (CFHC). Our pet cats typically do not do much hunting and eating of prey items (unless you have a particularly gifted mouser!). Commercial cat diets do not provide the same benefits to a cat’s dental health (unless you get a specified dental formula). However, this does not mean that you should let your cat outdoors to hunt in order to improve their dental health. Domestic cats are destructive to native habitats and can be detrimental to the survival of threatened and endangered species.
What Are The Reasons Why Cats Start To Lose Their Teeth?
Cats may lose teeth over the course of their life, especially as they get older. The reasons for losing teeth may be due to natural causes or health issues. One of the main natural causes of tooth loss is when kittens are teething. As kittens age, they naturally lose their baby teeth and grow in their adult teeth. If you are raising a kitten and come across stray teeth in your house, this is pretty natural.
The two primary reasons adult cats lose their teeth are due to injury and disease (CFHC). Considering the history of cats, losing teeth to injury is a natural phenomenon. Cats are agile hunters, and in the process of climbing, running, jumping, and taking down prey, cats may break or lose teeth. This may be a result of falling, running into something, or fighting with a particularly feisty prey animal. Another cause of tooth loss can be related to health issues. Both under natural conditions and in a household, infections in the mouth can lead to degradation of the teeth and subsequent tooth loss. As cats reach their senior years, they may begin to lose teeth.
Why Is It Important To Keep Your Cat’s Teeth And Gums Healthy?
It is important to keep your cat’s teeth and gums healthy in order to prevent pain and dental disease. Your cat should go to the veterinarian for an annual physical exam, which will typically include a dental checkup as well. Your veterinarian will be able to tell you how your cat’s teeth are looking, but there are plenty of preventative steps you can take to ensure your pet’s mouth stays healthy and free of dental disease. Sometimes dental disease is predetermined by a cat’s genetics, so even if you are on top of your pet’s dental health, they still may be prone to certain diseases.
Dental disease is very common in our pets. Gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption are the most common dental diseases seen in cats (CFHC, 2017).
- Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums. If an animal has gingivitis, the gums may be red and swollen (CFHC, 2017).
- Periodontitis is the result of untreated gingivitis. Periodontitis causes damage to the tissues of the teeth and can lead to teeth that are weakened and prone to fall out of the mouth (CFHC, 2017).
- Tooth resorption is another serious disease where the structure of the tooth breaks down (CFHC, 2017).
All dental diseases can cause pain and discomfort in cats. Cats with dental issues may show sensitivity on one side of their face, be reluctant to eat, drool, scratch at their face or ears excessively, and may have bad breath. If you see any of these symptoms in your cat, it may be time to bring them to the veterinarian for a dental cleaning.
To prevent dental disease, regular teeth brushing is an important first step. Contrary to popular belief, cats can be trained to accept dental checkups and teeth brushing. The trick is to keep the experience positive and rewarding. Start by gradually introducing the toothbrush and toothpaste to get them used to the products you will be using and the sensation of these products in their mouth. If your cat likes to eat treats, follow each tooth brushing training session with a treat or two, or with wet food as part of a meal. If your cat prefers petting and attention to food, follow teeth brushing with some regular brushing or petting, or whatever interaction is most rewarding for your cat. This will help teach your cat that good things follow getting their teeth brushed. As your cat gets comfortable with the process, you can brush more and more, providing plenty of rewards and space to get away if they need to.
Cat-specific toothpaste should be used. Many cat toothpastes are flavored to help entice your cat to cooperate. For cats who are still learning to accept getting their teeth brushed, there are other options for keeping your cat’s mouth clean. There are water additives, foams, gels, and dental treats that can all be used to improve your cat’s dental health. Always use cat-specific products to avoid accidentally poisoning your cat.
Adult cats have a mouth full of 30 teeth. Cats use their teeth for obtaining and holding food, chewing food, and for self-defense. Unfortunately, domestic cats are experiencing dental disease at a high rate. Dental disease can cause pain and discomfort in our feline friends and can lead to tooth loss and other health issues. It is important for cat parents to be proactive about their cat’s dental health through regular check-ups, teeth brushing, and dental cleanings.
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Pet dental care. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). 2017. Feline dental disease. Retrieved September 11, 2019.
Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC). When kitty needs a dentist. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
International Cat Care (ICC). Feline dentition – cats’ teeth. Retrieved September 11, 2019.